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One Second After: A Book Review from a Prepper's Perspective PDF Print E-mail
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by Jerry Erwin   
02 July 2009
ImageThe new, apocalyptic novel One Second After deals with an extremely fast crash, being that of an EMP, or Electromagnetic Pulse attack on the United States.

Those of us who study the history of societal collapse, who might also be known as doomers, as well as preppers, tend to define a potential collapse as either a “slow crash”, or a “fast crash”.

A slow crash would be something akin to the slow collapse of a major power / civilization, like the Romans, or the Mayans, or, for that matter… us, with the current economic collapse, triggered by the global peak in oil production, which occurred in June, 2008 (and longer, if you look at the trigger events, and the peaking of various indicators since the 1970s).

A fast crash, on the other hand, would be something sudden, like a nuclear attack, natural disaster, or a comet hitting the Earth -- or drastic oil-supply loss triggering socioeconomic collapse.

The new, apocalyptic novel One Second After deals with an extremely fast crash, being that of an EMP, or Electromagnetic Pulse attack on the United States.

I felt that a long intro to this book review was necessary, since many, to include peak oilers and other progressive visionaries may not be familiar with what EMP is. Also, this particular book deserves it, as it is very realistically written, unlike S.M. Sterling’s Dies the Fire. Dies the Fire and its sequels were very popular novels, but read more like a Society of Creative Anachronisms fantasy, where even firearms fail to function. That particular book is well-known among the progressive community in the Pacific Northwest, where it takes place, mostly in Oregon.

To explain briefly what EMP is, it is radio wave-like energy that is emitted from a nuclear detonation. As a direct hit on a physical target, nuclear detonations only produce a limited amount of EMP. However, a nuclear device, detonated, high in the atmosphere (or above), can produce an electrical chain-reaction, affecting everything below it, line-of-sight. This energy is usually expressed in, and measured in the tens, to hundreds of thousands of volts.

Electromagnetic Pulse can effect entire power grids, as well as anything solid-state (semiconductors, transistors, integrated circuits, etc.), particularly if it has an antenna connected. Regardless of this, the EMP wave will generally hit any and all circuitry at the same time, unless it is specifically shielded against it. Therefore, protective items like surge protectors, fuses, etc. don’t work.

The author, William R. Forstchen, who holds a Ph.D. from Perdue University, specializes in military history and the history of technology. He is known for his non-fiction works, such as Gettysburg, and Pearl Harbor. Forstchen is also known for his fantasy novels and other works of fiction, set to actual history within the Civil War.

This book is forwarded by Newt Gingrich, and although some politically-oriented people might moan and groan at the thought of a former Republican Speaker of the House providing a forward to a work of fiction, he simply endorses the purpose of the book as a warning. Not from a Fatherland Security (oh…I meant Homeland Security) “the terrorists are everywhere and we should be constantly vigilant” standpoint, but from the fact that very few people in government have taken this particular type of foreign threat seriously.

Forstchen admits in his Acknowledgements that “All books are, in a way, the works of others…” Although he mentions the novel Alas, Babylon and the movies Testament and On the Beach, I found that the storyline more closely resembles Lucifer’s Hammer, the famous apocalyptic novel that helped spark the survivalist movement during the 1970’s. Lucifer’s Hammer was also about an extremely fast crash, brought on by a comet’s impact with the Earth, which effectively destroys human civilization.

I actually found it puzzling why both the author of this book and his friend, Newt Gingrich mentioned the movie Testament. Having just recently watched this movie in it’s 25-year anniversary DVD format for the first time since the early 1980’s, Testament was more of an emotionally charged, less detail-oriented story of the effects of a strategic nuclear strike, on the people of a small town, outside of any burst radius. It was obviously a more liberal-oriented movie that preached the “No Nukes” message. This is confirmed by the fact that in the more recent DVD release of the film, the extra material includes interviews with the survivors of Hiroshima, little kids being taught about nukes, etc. Nonetheless, I can see how Testament could provide some seed material for this novel.

The book makes very intelligent observations, regarding how a fast crash would manifest itself, most notably the fact that yes; we will be thrown into something resembling the 1800’s. Only problem is, we don’t have an 1800s-type infrastructure. Even worse, even if we did, it wouldn’t be able to support the current population, and population densities within the US. The result is an instant Dark Age, where feudal-type arrangements are made with other nearby communities, as waves of starvation and disease dominate this story.

This novel takes place in North Carolina, in an area of the country where population density is already extremely high; the East Coast. Needless to say, the human carrying capacity of this region is practically nil in the event of a “grid-down” collapse, largely due to the replacement of local farms with suburban development, the kind of “pressboard and vinyl” encroachment that would throw James Howard Kunstler into a fit. The author does a good job in conveying this fact.

The main character is John Matherson, a retired US Army full-bird colonel, and history professor. This character is largely based on the author himself, in addition to taking place where the author lives.

The human die-off in this story occurs in waves. The first to go are all of the nursing home residents, as they lose their medications (particularly the ones that require refrigeration), dietary needs, etc. Next are all the people on various other medications, people suffering from their own obesity and lives of over-consumption, etc. The author also does a good job conveying how pampered and spoiled a society we’ve been, with medications for everything: Keeping people alive in a state that was never originally intended for human beings, such as drug-coated stints, and other heart medications, in particular. One reference is made to a 41-year old, who dies from a heart attack, simply carrying a bucket of water to his house. He is described as “50-pounds overweight, with cholesterol of 280”, and was known to live off of fast food.

On a subject dear to my heart, a short reference was made to us survivalists. Initially, the city council depicted in this novel wanted to confront a certain clan, living “up in the hills”. They are introduced, among others as “…the old survivalist types, the kind that were real disappointed when the world didn’t go to hell with Y2K. They’re just waiting for us to come up and try.” (p. 159)

Initially, they discuss this clan’s frozen meat, stored in a giant deep freeze, run off an old generator they were known to have. With the help of the main character, they decide that the amount of food taken – enough for maybe one meal per several hundred, would not be worth the loss of life. He also helps them decide that they should not take anyone’s food stores by force, provided they were not already participating in the town’s collectivized food rationing system. The main character then mentions that if there are any survivalists, and know that the town is not a threat to them, that the town would want to work alongside them, and learn any skills the survivalists would have to teach them.


As the food rationing gets smaller and smaller, the scenes are like Ethiopia in the early 1980’s, or Somalia in the 1990’s. As of Day 63:

The soup line at the elementary school was already forming up, even though distribution of the day’s rations wasn’t until noon. The carcass of a hog was trussed up to a tree, actually barely a suckling, already stripped down to the bones, which would be tossed into the pot as well.

The people on line were skeletal, their weight really falling away now. Many could barely shuffle along. Kids were beginning to have bloated stomachs. Out along the curb, half a dozen bodies lay, dragged out for the meat wagon, no longer even given the dignity of a sheet to cover them. A man, three kids, most likely their parents dead, and no one to truly care for them, and a woman, obviously a suicide, with her wrists slashed open. (p. 260)

The main character later admits to himself that his family could have had just a 50-pound sack of flour on hand, and some other basic things stored. Indeed, virtually everyone in this town only seems to have a few days of food, with nothing put-up, or stored, when the EMP attack occurs.

As is usually the case in being a prepper, I was pulling my hair out, talking to the main character (a habit I have, as if watching a movie), as he and other people did seemingly stupid things, or did things wrong. This is actually a good thing within a post-apocalyptic novel, as it represents a well thought-out story, on the part of the author.

One of the people referenced in the afterword to this novel is the peak oil hero himself, Republican House Representative Roscoe Bartlett. Bartlett, himself a former research scientist, had written a letter to the White House, describing how an EMP hit “…could cause the permanent collapse of our society.” This letter accompanied the Report of the Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States From Electromagnetic Pulse, which was largely ignored, having been released the very same day as the 9/11 Commission Report in 2004.

Again, One Second After represents an incredibly fast crash, as the modern convenience of electricity is suddenly and irreparably removed. It is also meant as a warning. And folks, it is UG-LY. There is no fantasy involved here, as the book goes into detail describing what the actual effects of an instant, without warning, EMP attack would be.

Without giving away any more of the book, I highly recommend One Second After, as it was extremely hard to put down, similar to my experience with Lucifer’s Hammer.

And it does indeed give a very real warning. In this age of a crumbling US Empire, accompanied by a global financial collapse (not cyclical crisis, as the media would like for you to think), the US is already experiencing the type of blowback described by Chalmers Johnson. This is in addition to the US now being in direct competition with other major powers over the Earths’ remaining resources. Therefore, a massive nuclear EMP attack is a very real threat. After I finished it, I found myself stuffing any and all electronics into ammunition cans that were then connected to the grounding circuit in my house.

* * *

Jerry Erwin is a US Army All-Source Intelligence Officer, with over 24 years of experience, currently serving in his Army Reserve status. Jerry is also a member of Portland Peak Oil, since 2005. He spends roughly half of each year performing various active duty tours, nationwide. He was awarded the Army Achievement Medal for his work as a Strategic Analyst. Jerry is regularly invited to the US Army War College to assist in the annual Strategic Decision Makers Exercise. Jerry has a B.A. Degree in Intelligence Studies from American Military University, and a separate A.S. Degree in Electronics Technology (Specialized) from Bay Valley Technical Institute, Santa Clara, CA.

Other articles by Jerry Erwin:

World Made by Hand and post-apocalyptic fiction: a prepper’s perspective

Survivalism: for Peak Oilers and Ecotopians Too?

For further reading / viewing:

Forstchen, William R. One Second After. Forge Books. 2009.

Niven, Larry & Jerry Pournelle. Lucifer’s Hammer. Playboy Press. 1977.

Rawles, James Wesley, Patriots: A Novel of Survival in the Coming Collapse. Expanded / Updated Edition. Ulysses Press. 1990-2009.

Alas, Babylon


On the Beach

Comments (11)Add Comment
....of a very good book. I read the novel as soon as it came out and was impressed with the story and the facts interwoven throughout it.

It's hard for many to believe how fragile civilization is. It's not just the loss of everything run by electricity, it's the fact that we modern folks haven't just forgotten how to live without power...we were never taught how to.

If a modern town full of people were magically transported into a complete 1840's farming community that was devoid of it's people, the town fully equipped with everything one would need to get along without electricity, most of the modern's would starve to death. Or be killed by farm accidents.

It takes years to learn how to grow food properly, not to mention the care of animals and processing the critters into food. Knowing how to make candles, thread, cloths, soap, and so on is beyond the ability of most people today. Not that it's their fault or anything, it's just the way it is.

If everybody in this country would just have a months worth of basic food stored, then that would give some breathing room to keep panic from setting in give people time to think.

But, alas, that just ain't gonna happen. No one believes anything that bad is going to happen to them...until it does.

I heard that Hollywood is making a movie out of the book. I'm supremely confident they will screw it up with mega PC 'goodness' and turn it into a glorified soap opera.
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Thank you for your insightful and fair review of my book. You really hit some points dead center. At this moment (July 2012) no movie yet. My agent has maintained that we have must have a strong veto position that either it is factual and not devolve into soap opera otherwise it is better that it is not done at all.

I hope we can stay in touch. You also hit it dead on that if every American just maintained even a few months of emergency supplies on hand, and with that a simple water purifier and additional meds for those who need them, it can buy crucial breathing room for recovery. I am heartened by the emergence of the "preppers" movement (and detest how they are portrayed by main stream media.) I was approached by one cable network for an interview, negotiations lasted less than five minutes when I could see the angle they would take and their horror when I insisted on some control of content and how what I wrote about would be portrayed. Main stream just refuses to "get it." One would think the recent power blow out in DC would at least serve as some kind of mini example of the threat of EMP & CME for a rapid collapse which you so accurately define. My compliments on your work and service to our country.


William R. Forstchen
William Forstchen
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Thanks to all of you who try...
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One Second After: A Book Review from a Prepper's Perspective

Mr. Jerry Erwin,

I have read the book One Second After and your review, excellent work sir. As a Retired NAVY Senior Chief that spent my carrer on board various Fast Attack Nuclear powered submarines I became aware of the effects that EMP could have on our, even then; delicate electronic devices we had on board our submarines and our communities in 1980. I convinced my Weapons Oficer, Executive Officer and my Commanding Officer that we should find a alternate method to reprogram our onboard computers in the event that a close Nuclear strike happened and we survived. The magnetic programing media we used at the time, at best; would be scrambled and therefore usless for combat operations. It took 6 months but we come up with a way to restore our computers if the unthinkable ever did happen. It didn't thank god.
The reason for this little background is that I am writing a preppers hand book based on this worst case; EMP, wheather by a NUC or our source of sunshine the SUN. I would like permission to direct the readers of my handbook to your review of Dr. Forstchen's book ONE SECOND AFTER.

Thank you
J.M. Hendrix
James M. Hendrix
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Mr. Jerry Erwin,

I would like to either use your review of ONE SECOND AFTER or direct readers to your review which by the way is execellent. I am writing a preppers handbook that will be for personal and community planning and preperations.
My back ground is pretty straight forward. I spent 20 years in the U S NAVY and served onboard various Fast Attack Nuclear Submarines until my transfer to the Fleet Reserve in 1996 and ultimently full retirement in 2006. I became aware of EMP and its effects in a
ah ha moment shortly after a return from the Persian Gulf region in 1980. Thats when I became a prepper and thought about ways to get our submarine into the fight if there was ever a close Nuclear strike that we survived but our computers magnetic programing media got scrambled. It took 6 months but after convincing my Weapons Officer, Executive Officer and Commanding Officer they allowed me to come up with a Alternate means of reprograming the computers with a media that could survive a EMP. Those were dangerous days for our country and Thank GOD we never had a NUC strike.
I am still a prepper and have been thinking about how to spread the word about this danger and since our government seems to be locked in a left vs right battle within and unlikely to do anything constructive to address this danger I have decided to write about what people and communities can do to survive. Note: I have never written anything before but I feel driven to do at least this.

Thank you
J M Hendrix
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James M. Hendrix
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Great summary of a great book.
Just wanted to say that the story takes place in the western. Part of NC.
A small town called Black Mountain.
Which made the story that much scarier as I live 40 minutes from there.
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As I read the book, every fact presented was concurrent with the things I know about EMP and nuclear based technologies as they apply to warfare. Sadly, I can see a lot of what happens in the book as extremely possible. I think this book should be the de facto handbook of what to expect and what NOT laying by in store, will get you.

Sadder still, The stupidity and denial of the average person, will make this a horrible reality if we don't have an almost Civil Defense- like education campaign. When people don't know what to do and panic, their odds of survival become almost non-existent. Ive seen this in Two hurricanes I went through. Catrina and Ike, though the people pulled together in our community much better during Ike. Watched horrible mishandling of situation during Catrina. The bumbling actions of gov during Catrina tells you very quickly that you are on your own in most cases.
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The only question I have is HOW MANY more Katrinas, Hurricane Sandy's etc. do we have to go through BEFORE people GET IT through their thick skulls that they should prepare with AT LEAST a couple weeks of food, water, toilet paper, cleaning supplies, some flashlights and batteries, a shortwave radio etc? It boggles the mind how in denial people really are.
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Why can this be made into a movie? What is stopping it from being made? I think it would be a blockbuster. They made ones about zombies and other crazy things. This is a REAL possibility. People should wake up about this, and be prepared. It's not too far out since Iran and Korea have been testing rockets to do that type of thing. Let's see if it is a possibllity,
Frank Ouimette
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Great book! The more specialized and advanced an economy, the worse effect an event like this would have.

Although a terrorist EMP Attack would be catastrophic, I think the effects of a severe solar storm would be almost as bad (at least for whatever side of the planet is facing the sun when the solar wind strikes us). NASA would be able to give us SOME advanced warning, but not enough to save the logistical engine that powers our first world economy.

And granted hindsight is 20/20, and commodities markets can be volatile (even without terrorist attacks), but 1 barrel of crude today is trading for about 35% of of what it was when this review was written. But, if any peak oil folks want to lift some oil futures off my hand at 2009 prices, I'm game!!

Of course, if any scenario like this were to occur, owning tons of options in oil futures wouldn't really help much.

Brian B
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And now there's a sequel.
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